The Right to Life is one of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Section 33 of the Constitution provides that “Every person has a right to life, and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life…….” Article 4 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Right states that human life is inviolable and no one should intentionally be deprived of his life.

Undoubtedly, the right to life is the most important right of all the rights provided for and guaranteed by the Constitution. This is so because one needs to have life in order to be able to enjoy or enforce all other rights; certainly, a dead man cannot enforce his right to life or any other right.

The best course for the protection of the right to life of a person is to put in place safeguards which would not permit it to be infringed on in the first place, this is because no remedy or compensation given by the court can bring a person who has been deprived of his life in violation of his right, back to life.

The Constitution guarantees that an action for the enforcement of the right to life of a person can be brought when that right has been infringed, when it is being infringed or when there are occurrences or factors which indicate that the right might likely be infringed.

Can the right to life of a deceased person be enforced by others, where a contravention of the deceased’s right to life resulted in his death?

In the case of Omonyahuy vs. Inspector-General of Police, the court opined that:

“In resolving this issue, which boils down to a question of whether the constitutional right to life of a dead man can be enforced by his dependents, we are faced with an uphill task and will be swimming in uncharted waters, since there are no authorities either from the Supreme Court or this court on this subject, and so to guide us on this journey through virgin territory, we must establish where we were, where we are, and where we need to go.”

Under the 1979 Fundamental Rights Enforcement Procedure Rules (this is the Rule that sets out the manner in which a person can enforce his fundamental rights), it was only a person whose right was infringed, or in danger of being infringed, that was recognised as having the requisite legal right to institute an action to enforce his fundamental right. No other person was recognised under the law.

This position was altered when the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules 2009, made pursuant to the 1999 Constitution, was enacted. Under the FREP Rules 2009, elaborate provisions were made for the protection and enforcement of the fundamental rights of a person. Courts were enjoined under the rules to encourage and welcome public interest litigations and not to strike out any human rights application on the ground that the applicant has no legal right to institute the action (this is especially where the applicant is not the victim of the human rights abuse.) The rules also provide that human rights activists, advocates, groups, as well as any non-governmental organisations may institute human rights application on behalf of any potential applicant.

Thus, the law recognises the following persons as capable of instituting fundamental rights actions:

  1. Anyone acting in his own interest;
  2. Anyone acting on behalf of another person;
  3. Anyone acting as a member of or in the interest of a group or class of persons;
  4. Anyone acting in the public interest;
  5. Association acting in the interest of its members or other individuals or groups.

The Courts have placed reliance on the Supreme Court’s decision in the early case of Bello vs. Attorney-General of Oyo State, where the Supreme Court stated that “action will lie for the violation of the right to life by or on behalf of any person who has an interest in the continued existence of the deceased”.

It must be stated that the law has gone beyond this point; one does not need to have an interest in the continued existence of a person before he can institute an action for the enforcement of a deceased’s right to life.

Anyone at all, as stated under the FREP Rules can institute an action for the enforcement of a deceased person’s fundamental right. The court in Omonyahuy V. Inspector General of Policeaffirmed this when it stated that:

“Insisting that only the …..subject of an infringement can approach the court when such right is violated would create an absurdity….This is more so in relation to the right to life when already contravened, for in this case,  the …victim would have been dead….the next of kin of such deceased citizen must be permitted to enforce the right so allegedly deprived.”

From the foregoing, it is clear that a deceased person’s right to life can be enforced on his behalf by his dependants, family, friends, and any person at all.